The Ipswich River Watershed Association and three other environmental watchdog groups yesterday resigned from a state advisory panel, decrying a reversal in state policy they say could dry up all the state's rivers.

That's their side of the story. On the other side, the Department of Environmental Protection representatives contend a new interagency initiative will do a better job of addressing problems that cause rivers, including the Ipswich River, to run dry in the summertime.

If the devil is in the details, this battle comes down to one of the tiniest possible: a single word.

Two years ago, a Superior Court judge sided with the watershed association in a lawsuit that claimed the DEP was violating the Water Management Act of 1986 by not calculating "safe yield" in the Ipswich River before granting a withdrawal permit to Hamilton.

Safe yield is the total amount that can be pumped out of any water supply without causing "unreasonable" harm.

Last May, an administrative magistrate agreed with the Superior Court decision and said the state agency must determine safe yield in the Parker River before issuing Ipswich a permit to withdraw water from it.

The agency's response, Ipswich River Watershed Association Executive Director Kerry Mackin said yesterday, has been to effectively remove the word "safe" from the safe yield requirement, a change she contends would allow communities that pump water from the river to nearly double their annual withdrawals.

"There's nothing safe about this safe yield," Mackin said.

The DEP contends it has calculated safe yields for all 27 water basins in the state, and now defines it as the amount of water that would be present in them during a year of drought. In the case of the Ipswich River, that amounts to 21 million gallons a day more than communities are currently permitted to withdraw.

In a statement released yesterday, Lisa Capone, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, wrote, "We hope these important voices come back to the table to help us to continue to craft a policy that takes a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to the water resource challenges we are facing. Our top priority is protecting our water resources and we are doing that, under the terms of a Superior Court order requiring the Department of Environmental Protection to recalculate safe yield for the Ipswich River."

None of the calculations cited by the DEP in its summary of safe yields for Massachusetts basins addresses the health of the plants and animals that depend on the basins for life.

Water of life

Fifteen communities stretching from Wilmington to Salem depend on the Ipswich River watershed — which has at times been littered with dead fish on a dry riverbed — for either part or all of their water needs.

Mackin contends the DEP's decision "guts" the requirements of the state's Water Management Act. It forbids the agency to issue water withdrawal permits in any river basin that is "over-allocated," meaning permitted withdrawals are already exceeding safe yield.

Despite aborted attempts to determine what that magic number is, Mackin said the agency has never successfully calculated it.

"After waiting 23 years, it's beyond disappointing," Mackin said of the DEP's new tack.

Just as disappointing, Mackin said, was that neither she nor representatives of any of the other three environmental groups on the advisory committee, the Conservation Law Foundation, Charles River Watershed Association and Clean Water Action, were consulted before the state agency announced its new policy.

"We're not going to waste any more time there (the committee)," Mackin said. "Our advice is obviously not welcome."

Margaret Van Deusen, an attorney who has represented the watershed association for many years, said yesterday she doesn't believe the state agency can sidestep the court orders to determine safe yield.

"Especially when the judge said their previous yield calculations were too high," Van Deusen said. "We will remind the judge of that."

Rather than coming up with an acceptable calculation, Van Deusen said, it looks to her like the DEP, "spent the last two years trying to find a way to get around it."

In April 2003, the Ipswich River was named the third most endangered in the country by American Rivers, a national conservation group. The organization cited excessive water withdrawals, particularly in the summer, as a cause for the designation.

The watershed association has been party to numerous lawsuits regarding water withdrawals from the river. Mackin said DEP officials have testified under oath that they consider the Ipwich River to be over-allocated already.

Establishing a safe yield level that would allow, at least in theory, a 63 percent increase in pumping reverses policies that have been followed by five previous gubernatorial administrations, Mackin said.

"How does that pass the straight-face test?"

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